Well-Being Initiative

Princeton HealthCare System Foundation Princeton HealthCare System Foundation

Penn Medicine Princeton Health’s physicians, nurses and other team members – like those throughout the country and the world – play a crucial role in fighting the COVID-19 outbreak and saving lives.

To an outside observer, our caregivers inspire us as they battle a medical crisis unlike anything they’ve seen before, under incredibly difficult circumstances and at great personal risk, to keep others safe. But the unpredictable and constant demands of this highly contagious, deadly illness are taking a toll.

In early March, Princeton Medical Center (PMC) transformed itself into a COVID-ready hospital, converting inpatient floors into intensive care units, deploying extra staff to handle surging patient volumes in the Emergency Department, setting up triage and testing centers, while continuing to provide uninterrupted care for patients with other serious medical conditions.

Our employees rose to the challenge – working extended shifts while coping with limited PPE, a large number of critically ill patients, changing treatment protocols, fear of infecting loved ones, and patient death.

But dealing with these prolonged challenges comes at a price. Experts believe that health care workers as a group – including our own – are likely to develop anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, acute stress, and eventually PTSD as a result of what they’re experiencing on the pandemic front lines.

Early Help Early On
When we admitted our first COVID patients in March, we proactively implemented a number of mental health support services for staff. For three months, Reverend Matthew Rhodes, a member of PMC’s chaplaincy staff, and community clinical psychologist and PTSD specialist Michael Libertazzo, began rounding on various hospital units to gauge care team stress. They held debriefing sessions so staff could voice their concerns.

Rhodes and Libertazzo found that employees’ initial sense of fear gave way to a sense of duty, but many still felt overwhelmed by the volume of patients needing treatment and guilty that they weren’t able to do more for them. At the same time, they expressed pride in their work, a deep appreciation for their colleagues, and the need to heal emotionally before the next wave.

We also deployed wellness ambassadors from Princeton House Behavioral Health (part of Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center) who met with staff after every shift to provide additional debriefing and counseling. And a grateful community donated meals to-go, restaurant gift cards, personal care products and other items to help sustain our team members.

During the height of the pandemic, we found that a large number of our clinical staff actively sought out our mental health resources, some up to 25 times since they began treating COVID patients – a somewhat surprising fact since clinicians, doctors especially, avoid admitting to burnout or seek help.

Building a More Resilient Organization

As we look ahead to the next few months and beyond, our goal is to continue to build a culture and environment where nurses, physicians and employees in every job across our organization can “be human” – where they feel comfortable asking for help, and to be an organization that continues to recognize their mental health needs and provide the resources needed to build a resilient organization.

We are seeking philanthropic funding to support the following:

Clinical Psychologist: Dr. Libertazzo, who volunteered his time and expertise to us during the first wave of the pandemic, has had a tremendous impact on our employees’ mental health. He specializes in providing “psychological first-aid” on the frontline to medical personnel and other first responders during a crisis or natural disaster. He also helps patients deal with the PTSD commonly experienced afterward. We would like to have Dr. Libertazzo stay on part time in a paid capacity for the next 12 months to continue to support our care teams. Funding will cover his consulting fee.

Peer-to-Peer Nurses Support: More than half of U.S. nurses report experiencing burnout that impacts the care they provide to patients, especially the critically ill. They are prone to stress and emotional exhaustion as they help families navigate life-altering events. During the COVID outbreak we’ve seen first-hand that PMC’s nurses are not immune to what experts call “compassion fatigue” and as such we’d like to implement a support program that includes education, resiliency training and peer-to-peer support sessions where our nurses can share their experiences, process difficult situations together, and come away feeling more supported and with useful coping strategies. Funding will support annual training and education.

Schwartz Center Rounds: This program will offer our care teams a structured forum in which to openly and honestly discuss the social and emotional issues they face in caring for patients and families. The premise is that caregivers who share their experiences drawing from actual patient cases are better able to care for patients when they have greater insight into their own feelings. This highly regarded program has proven to improve teamwork, communication, decrease stress and isolation, and increase compassion and readiness to respond to patient and family needs. Funding will cover the annual membership fee with the Schwartz Center to bring their training and resources to PMC.

Grand Rounds Speaker Series: We would like to hold a quarterly speaker series during PMC’s medical grand rounds featuring experts in medical crisis management, stress management and resiliency. Funding will cover speaker and administrative fees.

Please click here if you are interested in supporting this initiative or contact the Foundation at PMPH-Foundation@PennMedicine.Upenn.edu or 609.252.8710